CORTLAND, N.Y. – Crime in New York State reached an all-time low in 2014, according to a September 2015 report released by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.
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Out of 62 counties in the state, Cortland County saw the most dramatic decrease in overall crime in 2014, according to the report. Overall crime–which includes violent crime, property-related incidents, burglaries, larcenies and motor vehicle thefts–was down 34 percent in the county last year.
While these statistics should be encouraging for local law enforcement, one prosecutor says the report fails to include a deeper, systemic problem in Cortland County: the rise of drug-related crimes.
“It doesn’t truly capture a lot of other aspects of crime in the community that are troubling,” Cortland County District Attorney Mark Suben said of the report.
Cortland County is coping with what Suben referred to as an epidemic of drugs, particularly methamphetamine. In 2014, Cortland County reported 39 meth-related incidents, more than any other county in New York State. Law enforcement officials have tied that statistic to increased enforcement efforts and community outreach, allowing police to find meth labs that would otherwise operate undetected in more isolated, rural communities.
While Suben doesn’t dispute the report, he says it also doesn’t include several violent crimes that have had a significant impact on the local community.
For instance, the district attorney’s office currently has five pending homicide cases, which Suben says is highly unusual for a county the size of Cortland.
“In 50 years, we normally would not have five homicides,” he said. “That, to me, is a very meaningful statistic that’s not captured by those statistics.”
Brainstorming ideas for a new jail
The rise in drug-related arrests has contributed to an overcrowding problem at the county jail, prompting officials to spend $150,000 to hire an engineering firm to explore possible sites and designs for a new public safety building.
At a meeting of the Cortland County Legislature’s Public Safety Committee last month, outgoing sheriff Lee Price said his department has noticed this trend and taken steps to reduce overcrowding.
“We’ve been adjudicating cases quite quickly, more than in the past,” Price said, while also stressing the need for a new county jail.
In late August, the county contracted with SMRT Architects & Engineers to work with the county on the jail project. So far, officials have identified three feasible sites for a new public safety building.
At a November meeting of the legislature’s public safety committee, Capt. Bud Riggs with the sheriff’s department told legislators that the county is seeking state approval for all three sites, which would give them more flexibility when making a final decision.
Riggs said they’re also looking at creating a one-of-a-kind, energy efficient building that would stand out from facilities in other counties.
“We want to do some things that have never been done before in New York State,” Riggs said. “The plan is to have the most efficient facility in the state.”
“It sounds kind of crazy, but we want it to look more like an aesthetically pleasing place, so the average driver driving by wouldn’t even know it’s a jail,” he later added.
Riggs said officials are also exploring the possibility of a joint public safety building that would house the City of Cortland Police Department, the Cortland County Sheriff’s Department and the county jail, though that would likely require the facility to be located within city limits, he said.
Riggs declined to say if any of the three possible sites are located in the city.
Years ago, county officials looked into creating a joint public safety building with neighboring counties, though that would require a change in state law, which mandates that every county have its own jail.
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